Policies of Cleveland Voucher Program Faulted
Ohio education officials say they plan to step up their scrutiny and guidance of Cleveland's voucher program after a state auditor's report showed the program in need of greater oversight.
In announcing the move last week, the state education department pledged to carry out its own review to pursue the auditor's claims that the state-funded program lacks clear policies in some areas and fails to verify adequately the eligibility of its participants.
While moving the state to action, the audit also has stoked the fires of debate around the program, which this year awarded vouchers worth up to $2,250 a year to about 2,900 Cleveland students to pay tuition at private and religious schools.
As supporters call for minor reforms, critics say the report confirms that the voucher experiment should be scrapped.
"This pilot program appears to have been totally mismanaged," state Sen. C.J. Prentiss, a Democrat, contended. "People have taken the money and done whatever they want with it without any kind of oversight."
Jim Petro, Ohio's Republican state auditor, launched the review last spring after completing an earlier audit of the program's transportation budget. That review questioned $1.4 million spent on taxi rides to transport voucher students to their schools during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 school years. The state spent about $16 million overall on the program during that time.
Since then, the city's public schools have been transporting most of the voucher students. ("Audit Criticizes Cleveland Voucher Program," April 15, 1998.)
Although most supporters intended the vouchers to serve low-income families, the report released this month points out that state law does not set an income cap for eligibility. As a result, it says, some 30 children whose families' make more than $50,000 a year have received vouchers.
It also argues that the program has been lax in collecting documentation from applicants about their income and residency status. About a third of the student files examined were for children whose last names did not match those of the adults filing their application, and yet the program did not adequately verify their legal guardianship, according to the audit.
Part of the problem, Mr. Petro suggests, is that the program's six-person administrative staff has only three full-time employees.
"I think the staffing for the program has to have an adequate level of people to maintain accountability and control," he said in an interview.
But the program's director, Bert L. Holt, while agreeing that she could use more help, challenged the idea that her staff didn't do enough to verify students' eligibility. Any program that serves such a large number of at-risk children needs some flexibility in the kinds of documentation it requires of them, she argued.
"You can't ask for utility bills if they're homeless," said Ms. Holt, who released her own 17-page response to the audit.
Program administrators also are awaiting a state supreme court ruling on its constitutionality this year.
"The bottom line is that our mission is accomplished," Ms. Holt said, "in spite of having to answer to the world."
James Van Keuren, the interim state schools superintendent, responded to the report by pledging to send two education department auditors to Cleveland to examine the voucher program, which is now in its fourth year of operation. His department plans to address any staffing problems and will better define procedures for establishing eligibility, he said.
At the same time, lawmakers may consider legislation to ensure that only low-income parents receive vouchers. "If that in fact is a loophole, somebody will address that," said state Sen. Robert Gardner, a Republican who sits on the Senate education committee.
But Mr. Gardner said he didn't believe that the concerns raised by the report amounted to gross mismanagement: "Obviously, any new program is going to have some glitches."
Vol. 18, Issue 19, Page 3